Narrated from the perspective of an unreliable protagonist, Kazuo Ishiguro’s “An Artist of the Floating World” is anchored by two themes: First, the tendencies of individuals – when looking back on our own lives – to think of and to present ourselves in the best possible light; and second, the tension between the old and the new, the old and the young. With the ageing pained Masuji Ono, who is now looking back on his life and the changing environment around him, his hazy recollections result in positive accounts of his character, and the intersection of his own art history with the developments of post-World War Two Japan underline the old-new or old-young divide.
Across the four parts of the book – October 1948, April 1949, November 1949, and June 1950 – the stream-of-consciousness in Ono’s narration reads like diary entries. The overall structure is ostensibly chronological, yet he jumps across timelines and different events or meetings are linked spuriously, resulting in Ono going off-tangent when something or someone else comes to mind. Above all, he cannot be trusted. Besides keeping the reader in suspense about his own history or supposed transgressions, he questions his own memory. He often muses: “These .. may not have been the precise words I used”, “My memories … are not as clear as they might be”, and “It is possible [that the said person] did not use those exact words”
Further hints of his unreliability appear when other characters, such as his daughters, contradict his accounts.
This narrative style is further linked to the post-war dynamics that “An Artist of the Floating” is set against. While the reader is left to infer about Ono’s exact nature of complicity – since he cannot be trusted to give an objective account – it would seem that his involvement in far-right politics and propaganda as well as his role as a police informer during the war has led to a discrediting of his reputation. A neat parallel is maybe his little hypocrisy, of Ono having broken away from the artistic teaching of his master, and how lamenting the fact that Japanese traditionalism is giving way to American modernism, of the old giving way to the new or young.
There is a slight acknowledgement of his past mistakes and present perspectives (which brings to mind my overall review of Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day”): “Our nation, it seems, whatever mistakes it may have made in the past, has now another chance to make a better go of things. One can only wish these young people well”. But as a friend shared, on the broader takeaways from the book, Ono continues to think of himself in the best possible light, and “the character might not explicitly acknowledge and perhaps they have gone too far down the rabbit hole, but the hope is [that we, the readers] have not”.